Seduced By Science!

Royal_Institution_-_Humphry_Davy
Andrea/Cara here
, m
using on science today. I confess, given that my academic expertise in science ended in 9th grade biology class (you know, the one with formaldehyde, dead frogs and very sharp knifes!) it might strike you as rather strange that science plays a big role in the plot of Murder on Black Swan Lane, the first book of my new Regency-set mystery series, which hits the shelves next month. Allow me to explain . . .

Antoine_lavoisierI have an art background, which may seem like the polar opposite from the world of laboratories, microscopes and bubbling chemicals. I thought the same thing until I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes a few years ago. In it, he talks about how during the Regency era, the artists and scientists all thought of themselves as kindred souls. For them, exploration and discovery in any discipline required imagination and creative thinking. Painters, poets, chemists, astronomers—they all shared a passion for pushing themselves to think outside the box.

MBSL cover-hi res smallHmmm, I thought . . . these are just the same qualities required to unravel diabolical mysteries. So it suddenly struck me that having a scientist and an artist could be a really fun combination. In the Earl of Wrexford and Charlotte Sloane, I’ve sought to create two lead characters who embody the intellectual curiosity—and gritty courage—of the times. They are opposites: a brooding aristocrat whose extraordinary mind runs on the rational new principles of scientific inquiry, paired with a struggling artist whose innate cleverness and intuition are the keys to her survival. Forced to work together, Wrexford and Charlotte find they make a formidable team, despite their differences. (Ah, but as science tells us, opposites often attract!)

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The Story of a Fork

Wench fork circa 1600 mother of pearl and beads VandAIf you figger folks in ye olden days had it tougher than we do now, you don’t have to look further than the matter of forks. Oversimplifying like mad, one may say that Europe went from a state of no forks whatsoever, to the slightly more satisfying condition of two-pronged forks, to the multiply pronged jobbies we enjoy today.

Let us go back to the very beginning of fine dining in Europe. Here’s a Medieval feast. White cloth, pretty

Wench bosch wedding at cana crop

click for closeup

dishes, probably wonderful food  and wine or mead or whatever. But the guests were expected to manage the food with their knives and spoons, which they brought with them, and their fingers which they also brought with them and washed from time to time with fingerbowls and clean linen.

See how that table has knives set about here and there. There’s no soup or stew in evidence so folks

Wench 1656 maes crop

I don't know why the knife is pointed at her

haven’t taken their spoons out.

 

Here's another picture. Her dinner is soup and fish and maybe a veggie. She has a spoon, I think, in her bowl and a knife, but she has no fork. It's 1656. 

We are pre-fork.

Of course, there had been forks in the kitchen forever, poking roasts and holding meat down to be carved and fetching beets out of boiling water. Now the fork emerged into the culinary daylight and took a place at the table. It served two purposes there. It secured food so your knife could cut it. And the fork could be used to convey food to the mouth, a job that had heretofore been performed by the sharp point of a knife or the bowl of a spoon. Or, you know, fingers.

I have no doubt folks were nimble at this eating food off a razor-sharp knife tip. However, I’m glad I didn't have to teach a three-year-old the knack. Knives doubtless made food-fights in the nursery an altogether more deadly affair.

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The Ritual of Tea …

Mary_Cassatt_-_Afternoon_Tea_Party

Tea and conversation

One of the great ceremonies of Regency life, one that defined gentility, was the taking of tea.

The Regency is sorta midway in the story of tea in England. We’re past the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century with its careful, stingy measuring of tea by the mistress of the household, the leaves locked up safe in a decorative caddy. We haven’t reached the Victorian era where tea was the daily drink of every working man and city housewife.

John MacDonald, a footman in the last half of the Eighteenth Century, would negotiate a salary that included an allowance for tea and sugar. But when he writes:

“My master had always plenty of fine tea, of which I drank some in the afternoon, and with which I treated the maid, and the maid also at the next house.”

I’m pretty sure he’s helping himself to the household store. At this time, tea is still a particular treat belowstairs.

When we come to early Victorian times … Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor, speaking of the 1840s, describes the street sellers.

Coffee and tea stall

Tea for sale, click for closeup

“There are, moreover, peculiar kinds of stalls — such as the hot eels and hot peas-soup stalls, having tin oval pots, with a small chafing-dish containing a charcoal fire underneath each, to keep the eels or soup hot. The early breakfast stall has two capacious tin cans filled with tea or coffee, kept hot by the means before described.”

In 1840, tea had ceased to be a servants’ perquisite, reluctantly granted by the employer and pilfered by the staff. Now it’s on the street. It’s Everyman’s drink.

But back to the parlor …

The taking of tea in the parlor meant slow, stylized ritual and unnecessary elaboration. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the hurried dipping tea out of a capacious tin can.

Consider this spread of tea complication.

Jean liotard still life tea set 1783

A pretty wild tea party, looks like

Going along from the left:

Teapot with its lid. Behind it, the tea caddy where the tea leaves live. In front of the tea pot, a cup, saucer, and silver spoon. The center spot on this tray is a shallow plate with orange slices. It might just as easily hold scones or muffins.

Working our way in from the right:

We have the slops bowl in back. That is a lovely useful thing to have, isn’t it? I kinda wish we had slops bowls for our lives where we could clear all the mess neatly away and go on with the tea party.

What else? There’s the bowl of sugar cubes. These cubes were not neatly square. They were nipped off the two-foot-high cone of sugar kept in the kitchen and came out irregular and all nobbly shaped. Over the sugar bowl are the sugar tongs. And here at the front of the sugar bowl is the milk jug.

Missing from this set is the strainer. About all the paintings I find of folks drinking tea,

Tea strainer 1780s V &A

Tea strainer

the tea strainer is nowhere in evidence. Yet they had them. They’re in museums. One would certainly have strained the tea leaves out of the drink at some point. Maybe they were considered too messy to put in the picture.

Also missing from this array is the kettle of hot water that sat over on the hearth

Tea kettle by the fire

The copper water kettle is by the fire click for closeup

keeping warm. The water would be used to warm up and dilute the tea in the teapot. You couldn’t hoist the teabags out of the water and put an end to the brewing, there not being any teabags yet. However long the tea party lasted, that was how long the tea steeped.

Here we have folks taking tea and the kettle is right there in evidence. One could also have a tea urn or samovar with coals under it, keeping warm, right there on the table.

 

Tea wter kettle on stand 1753

Silver kettle to heat water

This here is a silver tea kettle that would have had pride of place. The comment on this piece at the Victoria and Albert:

“The tea kettle and stand would have been the most expensive part of the tea service. For example, Mrs. Coke paid the goldsmith … £25 13s 1d for her kettle and lamp. Her teapot cost just £10 1s 8d.”

That comparative value is not set in stone. The best porcelain would cost more than uninspired silver,  but all things being equal, a silver tea service was the conspicuous consumption of the time. When the aged retainer staggers in with a tea tray full of silver teapots and silver slop bowls and what have you, it’s not just heavy. It’s (staggeringly) expensive.

But by the Regency, not all tea was drunk in the parlor with such magnificent display.

Monet_tea_set-

Be nice to have somebody bring this to your desk

We also have a cozier, more informal tea taking. One little pot of tea, prepared in the kitchen and brought up with a cup or two at the side. That was the tea laid down at the hero’s elbow while he worked on his accounts or the tea brought to the heroine and her sister as they put their heads together and plotted.

Making tea

Morning tea. Yellow and red tea caddies at the back
Chardin_ladytakingtea

Chardin 1735

This is my tea service there on the left. Rough and ready. But see that tea pot? It is of an ancient design. See it there in the painting by Chardin? And the little tea bowl is handmade by an artist in such things. I’m happy using this set. It makes me feel good, every time.

 

Do you have a tea set or a coffee service that is a joy to hold in your hands? Maybe something you inherited or bought at a special time of your life. Maybe a present.

Regency tobacco and How to Puff It

Francis welshFrom the first importation of tobacco into Europe, to Spain, round about 1528, folks tried various ways to get into the nicotine habit. By the Regency, folks had their choice of snuff, cigars, or pipes. 

Now, snuff is a whole extensive subject I am not going to go into Snuff box circa 1775except to say that it leads to a snuff boxes, like those on the right, which are the delightful byproduct of a nasty habit. If I’d been living in the Georgian era I would have collected snuff boxes and carried them about full of little fruit pastilles. 220px-Rowntrees-Fruit-Pastilles

Were there cigarettes?

Well, no. Not really. Technically there was something fairly similar to cigarettes in  Spain well before the Regency. They were called papelate and based on the Snuff box 1750South American custom of wrapping cut tobacco in rolled corn husks or bark or something other than a tobacco leaf. We have paintings of Spanish folks smoking this way, but no way to tell if papelate were routinely wrapped in paper.

The French, in the 1830s, saw the papelate, renamed it ‘cigarette’, and wrapped the tobacco in fine, thin paper. Voila. The rest is history.

Most significantly, the word cigarette is not used in English till 1842, so our Regency hero cannot step out onto the terrace to meditatively smoke a cigarette, overhear the heroine being reluctant with some man, and toss his cigarette down before he stomps off to be heroic.

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The Return of English Saffron

SaffronNicola here. Today I am talking about one of my favourite spices, saffron. I absolutely love saffron flavouring in my food and when I read recently that saffron was being grown in England for the first time in 200 years I was quite excited. English saffron tastes different from imported saffron. It has a honey sweetness and scent that offsets saffron’s slightly bitter under taste. This adds a very distinctive flavour to all sorts of recipes from those involving fish to cakes and even potatoes.

 Saffron is obtained from Crocus Sativus and it was once
a flourishing industry in England. In 1597 Gerard wrote in his Herbal "Saffron groweth plentifully in Cambridgeshire, Saffron Walden and other places thereabouts as corne in the fields". 

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